Two historians camped out in front of Waddesdon Manor with a not quite adequate supply of mulled wine, delight in the Winter Light display that made the manor house a kaleidoscope of moving and changing colours. About five minutes in our memorised state wore off, as our cups emptied and the realisation grew that the ratio, proportion and design of the Neo Classical architecture had no impact on the lighting design except to turn a few urns on the roof on and off at intervals. Nevertheless- as a tipsy Xmasy interlude to the real work awaiting us in the grounds, a changing multi-coloured façade on a beautiful building was perfectly sound for its audience of over confident, disinterested kiddies and their respective family members. Viewing up close, from a distance and from standing on top of the up lighting- enjoyment was to be had right up to the point where the vomit inducing red, white and blue stripes could not be blocked out by our next batch of mulled loveliness. [FYI free refills are not condoned at Waddesdon Manor, the National Trust maintains an incredibly accurate portion control, and the gentleman server with all the banter was heavily guarded by an overly aggressive sales assistant who you would not want to bump into in a dark alley, or on a dark night at a manor house for that matter].
Traipsing up and down we eventually find what we have been looking for-slightly perplexed as to why it’s so hidden away. Bruce Munro’s installation of tents that light up within the grounds. Promenading between glowing domes, an aisle of both light and darkness, never entirely one or the other is both quietly majestic and irritatingly gaudy. Rather than carving out the landscape to create new journeys, redefine the geography of space, the tents are cramped around the path, and squashed in, too close to the surrounding shrubbery. They have a bigger statement to make and are worthy of much more than a border for the aviary path. Unable to explore them at a distance and roped off so audience agency is limited the capacity of the work is inhibited. If you have to walk a predetermined path, why not create an experience that varies and develops as you wonder through? What if some of the speakers were sensored? What if different tents emanated with different tracks that overlapped, became stronger or faded away as you travelled? What if lighting states were triggered by sensors? Or at least choreographed with some rhythm and variety? A multi-coloured chase, and a red or blue fade becomes tiresome and quickly. Perhaps there wasn’t enough funding for collaboration with a lighting technician and composer. [Oops I just looked him up and with a strong body of work, Munro might be a lighting designer himself].
The tents infer that a social commentary is to be made, rows of little locked homes transformed into pulsating domes of light. They create a monument out of something temporary and transient, paying homage to ShelterBox. A charity that provides shelter for people in natural or humanitarian crises. This commentary is merely a reference at this point, lacking depth and development and at risk of being overshadowed by the towering elitist National Trust Manor House that funded a 3 year residency for artist Munro. What if each tent represented somebody who had been helped by the charity? What if the design of the soundscape and lighting score were influenced by environmental factors? What if the notion of home and homelessness were to be explored in wider sense? Perhaps this research would inspire a sense of criticality, a little more content and a depth and integrity that warrants a three year residency.
The mega-mix of repetitive pop songs separated by white noise like a changing radio channel (what an original idea), also references an unexplored theme. The urgent Morse code international distress signal punctuates the awful disco with a brashness that, like each concept in this work is not woven together. What of the biography of place? What role did this building have in the war? Is there an existing relationship to Morse Code?
Bruce Nauman’s ‘Raw Materials’ at the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’ at Winchester Guild Hall and Sarah Jane Norman’s ‘Stone Tape Theory’, at Spill Festival are three immediate examples that provide a context for SOS to move beyond rather than lag behind. The Wellcome Trust’s ‘States of Mind’ provides some current visual context that would add another dimension to Munro’s process.
This is a wonderful idea, it allows for varying levels of immersiveness, a redefinition of space and a social commentary that is absolutely fun and engaging. A great starting point to make something that requires a little more from it audience and artist. This is my second favourite type of work- it’s wonderful enough to inspire whilst its faults trigger all the ideas, argument and engagement needed to build from it, I’m all ready to go, where’s my three year residency?